Massachusetts

John Adams Refuses To Condemn Dr. Benjamin Church

John Adams withheld judgment when an intercepted letter revealed Dr. Benjamin Church, the Continental Army’s surgeon general, to be a British spy. But he immediately wrote Abigail to tell her he wouldn’t write “a syllable of anything of any moment” to her.

It was October 10, 1775, and Adams was in Philadelphia meeting with the Continental Congress. The news about Church stunned the delegates.

Church had served as the army’s chief physician of the Medical Service of the Continental Army since July 27, 1775. He wouldn’t have the job for much longer.

Dr. Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church, born in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 24, 1738, had a famous ancestor also named Benjamin Church: the colonel who led the hunt for and killing of King Philip during King Philip’s War.

Benjamin Church

Dr. Benjamin Church

After graduating from Harvard, Church studied medicine and built up a respected medical practice in Boston.

He portrayed himself as an ardent patriot through his writings and oratory. Some, however, suspected he secretly sided with the Loyalists.

Elected a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774,  he joined its Committee of Safety. In March 1775, the Provincial Congress voted to give him and Dr. Joseph Warren £500 to buy medical supplies for the armed forces.

Busted

Shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Church insisted on entering besieged Boston. Someone saw him with  British Gen. Thomas Gage. He claimed the British arrested and then released him.

In May, Church went to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress about defending Boston. While there the Congress appointed him chief physician of the Continental Army.

In July 1775, Church sent a coded letter to a British major. The letter was intercepted and sent to Gen. George Washington in September. The letter was found to include an account of the American forces in Boston – but nothing particularly useful to the British — and a declaration of Church’s devotion to the Crown.

On Oct. 10, John Adams wrote a letter to Abigail from Philadelphia.

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

…The surprising intelligence we have in private letters concerning the Director of the Hospital, has made me more cautious of writing than ever. I must be excused from writing a syllable of anything of any moment. My letters have been and will be nothing but trifles. I don’t choose to trust the post. I am afraid to trust private travelers. They may peep. Accidents may happen; and I would avoid, if I could, even ridicule, but especially mischief.

Pray, bundle up every paper, not already hid, and conceal them in impenetrable darkness. Nobody knows what may occur.

Samuel Ward, a delegate from Newport, R.I., wrote to his brother Henry on Oct. 11.

Dr. Church, Who could have thought or even suspected it, a man who seemed to be all animation in the cause of his Country, highly caressed, employed in several very honorable and lucrative departments, and in full possession of the confidence of his country, what a complication of madness and wickedness must a soul be filled with to be capable of such Perfidy! what punishment can equal such horrid crimes; I communicated the affair to the Massachusetts Delegates. They could hardly conceive it possible.

Adams on Dr. Benjamin Church

On Oct. 18, a week after writing to Abigail, John Adams broke his silence and wrote to his friend James Warren:

John Adams

John Adams

The letter of Dr. [Church] is the oddest Thing imaginable. There are so many Lies in it, calculated to give the Enemy an high Idea of our Power and Importance, as well as so many Truths tending to do us good that one knows not how to think him treacherous: Yet there are several Strokes, which cannot be accounted for at least by me, without the Supposition of Iniquity.

In Short I endeavor to suspend my Judgment. Don’t let us abandon him for a Traitor without certain Evidence.

But there is not so much Deliberation in many others, or so much Compassion.

Church was dismissed from his post on Oct. 17 and incarcerated until 1778, when he was released and banished. He sailed presumably to Martinique, but was lost at sea.

This story updated in 2022.

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